'Men of Color, To Arms!'


by Matthew Clavin

The last two decades have witnessed an extraordinary transformation in the writing of early American history. Where historians once assumed the exceptionalism of the new United States kept it hermetically sealed from the outside world, they now believe the early republic existed on the periphery of an Atlantic world. In this imagined space, people, plants, animals and ideas crisscrossed the Atlantic Ocean and linked Europe, Africa and the Americas together in a process that many would recognize today as globalization. No passing historiographical trend, the writing of American history from an Atlantic or transatlantic perspective has altered fundamentally our understanding of the United States.

Nowhere else is this more evident than in the exploding fields of race, slavery and abolition. The Atlantic slave trade produced a bound labor force numbering in the millions that for centuries buttressed European colonial empires as well as a host of new nation states, beginning with the United States. However, in the societies that enslaved them, Africans and their descendents often comprised a majority of the population and thus presented an ominous and existential threat. Once, they were successful in annihilating an entire European colony, the most profitable in the world at the time. During the Haitian Revolution, hundreds of thousands of bondspeople launched a slave insurrection of unprecedented size and scope that at the turn of the nineteenth century transformed French Saint Domingue into the second independent nation in the Americas, what the island’s indigenous people had always referred to as, Haïti.

I count myself among a generation of historians that because of Atlantic history are only just beginning to appreciate the global impact of the Haitian Revolution. More than a decade ago, I set out to determine the impact of the Haitian Revolution on the United States and learned quickly that doing so would require me to adjust both my field of study as well as my area of expertise: no easy task for a seasoned academic let alone a novice graduate student. Early American print and visual culture effused with texts and images of the Haitian Revolution, and in particular, Toussaint Louverture, the former slave turned military general and political governor. However, the sources I unearthed derived not from the early national period. To the contrary, most of the newspapers, pamphlets, and portraits produced in the United States that referenced the Haitian Revolution and its founding father appeared on the eve of and during the Civil War, more than a half-century after Haitian independence.

I should have anticipated the Haitian Revolution appeared most frequently in American public discourse during the Civil War. For at no other time in United States history did the American people discuss and debate the issues of race, slavery and abolition so widely. Furthermore, not since the Haitian Revolution had so many enslaved people gone to war to be free. Extending the paradigm of the Atlantic world to the middle of the nineteenth century, my study explores the impact of the first revolution over slavery in the Americas on the second and as a result gives the Haitian Revolution the significance it is due. It additionally gives the Civil War a much needed transnational and transatlantic reading. There is a tendency to read the Civil War as a local phenomenon, but in this study it is read instead as the final chapter of a revolutionary struggle over slavery begun in Haiti at the close of the eighteenth century.

A Confederate artist sketched this cartoon shortly after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln signs the document below a portrait of a haloed John Brown, or “St. Ossawotamie,” holding a sharpened pike. To the right is a larger framed picture depicting the Haitian Revolution. Entitled “St. Domingo” it shows revolting black slaves impaling white youths on stakes.

Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution begins at the turn of the nineteenth century, when Europeans, Americans, and Africans on both sides of the Atlantic tried to make sense of the news from the West Indies. In the coming decades, their descendants remembered the revolution in conversations in homes, taverns, and shops, on rural plantations, city streets and ocean-going vessels. They remembered it in newspapers and pamphlets, histories, biographies and fiction, all of which writers published and sellers circulated on both sides of the Atlantic. Memories of the Haitian Revolution were numerous and contradictory. They were, like the revolution itself, fiercely contested.

The result was the emergence of two competing narratives. Slaveowners and their supporters recalled a horrific revolution in which vengeful African slaves committed unspeakable acts of violence against innocent white men, women and children. At the same time, free and enslaved African Americans and their abolitionist allies remembered a heroic revolution in which an enslaved people under the leadership of an extraordinary black man vanquished their violent oppressors in an effort to secure both liberty and equality. The memory of Louverture dominated this narrative of the revolution and thus figures prominently in this study.

Today, the Haitian founding father is largely absent from American memory. But in the years leading up to and throughout the duration of the Civil War his name was a touchstone around which public discussions and debates revolved. It echoed across the United States as well as anywhere slavery persisted. There is no greater example of Louverture’s preeminence in transatlantic abolitionist culture than when an engraving of the founding father in full military garb appeared on the front page of the Penny Magazine—the world’s most popular illustrated periodical—atop a biographical sketch by the activist and author Harriet Martineau. Armed, literate and in command, he is an imposing black figure that for generations served as a foil to the stock image of the debased and degraded chattel slave.

The approach of the Civil War heightened the awareness of the Haitian Revolution. John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in particular, produced an explosion of public memory. But where abolitionists like Brown hoped to reenact a second Haitian Revolution in the southern United States, their slave-owning adversaries prepared to take all measures necessary to prevent such a reenactment from taking place. The preponderance of evidence supporting this finding sheds new light on the secessionist movement, which in this study appears not as a revolutionary crusade for political liberty and sectional equality, but rather a counterrevolution to maintain the status quo regarding slavery and white supremacy. In a typical comment made to win recruits to the secessionist cause, South Carolina secessionist John Townshend warned of the terrible dangers of a South bereft of human bondage, imploring, “Contemplate, I beseech you, fellow citizens, the example of St. Domingo.”

During the Civil War, the Haitian Revolution’s resonance throughout American political culture increased exponentially because of two prominent issues that preoccupied policy makers and civilians. First was the debate over the arming of black soldiers. The advocates of black soldiery drew on the success of the Haitian Revolution and especially the heroic accomplishments of Louverture to make a case for enlisting black men in the United States military. They invoked the revolution in speeches, articles, pamphlets and books incessantly. Indeed, it is difficult to locate any text published during the war that insisted on the right of black men to fight for their freedom, which does not contain at least one reference to the Haitian Revolution. The same can almost be said about the debate over emancipation. The greatest proponents of the extreme measure, such as the famed Boston orator Wendell Phillips, from the opening days of the war made Louverture a touchstone of the movement to transform the sectional conflict into a revolution over slavery. Phillips and others held up Louverture as a paragon of the black race. Strong and forceful, yet intelligent and sympathetic, he became for many a symbol of the potential of enslaved people everywhere.

Not all were convinced however. White southerners bristled at the notion of a great black man rivaling George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte and other Great Men of history. Throughout the war, they continued to use the horrific memory of the Haitian Revolution to steel their resolve to see the war to its bloody end. Ironically, many white northerners who opposed secession shared white southerners’ fears of a second Haitian Revolution and likewise opposed the idea of either arming or emancipating slaves. In public orations and printed texts, they demonstrated a cross-sectional racial solidarity that not only survived the Civil War but intensified in the post-war period.

Perhaps of all the discoveries made in the process of writing Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War, the one I most enjoyed unearthing was the overwhelming evidence of public memory of the Haitian Revolution having survived among both free and enslaved African Americans, including ordinary field hands in some of the most remote rural southern districts. Atlantic history has exploded the stereotype of the ignorant and uninformed plantation laborer; through oral and print culture, bondspeople in antebellum America were remarkably knowledgeable of current events and recent. Thus it is anticipated that among the thousands of fugitive slaves—or contrabands—who fled the fields and farms of their masters to seek freedom and protection behind Union lines, were men and women who referenced the revolution in interviews and conversations with soldiers and civilians. Some elderly contrabands claimed Haitian ancestry, while others still swore they were born in Haiti and had fought beside Louverture. Though the veracity of these stories is indeterminable, they underscore the survival of the Haitian Revolution in African American memory more than six decades after its conclusion. They are further evidence that we are only just beginning to realize the impact of the largest and most successful slave revolt in history.

About the Author:

Matthew J. Clavin is Associate Professor of History at The University of Houston in Texas and a specialist in early American and Atlantic history. He is the author of Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution.